(Title: The Accusation: Forbidden Stories From Inside North Korea; Author: Bandi (pseudonym); Publisher: Hachette India in arrangement with Profile Books; Pages: 247; Price: Rs 599)
The period is between 1989 and 1997. Bandi — the pseudonym of our North Korean author who is working in the nation’s official writers’ association — contributes to the government’s official periodicals. Behind the scenes, however, he secretly pens volumes of poems and stories criticising the state.
The 743-page manuscript is then smuggled out of North Korea in a Hollywood-like sequence and the seven stories that make up this volume are selected from the smuggled work to make what is the first-ever critical work of fiction by a North Korean resident.
The author of “The Accusation,” known only as Bandi (Korean for firefly), bluntly states that he is “fated to shine only in a world of darkness”. And it stands true to a large extent as neither we nor the North Korean authorities know the wherefores and whereabouts of this courageous genius.
According to the publisher, all we know about Bandi — the man who risked his life to enlighten the world of the slavery and tyranny in North Korea — is that “he belonged to the Korean Writer’s Alliance, a government-controlled organ dedicated to producing censored literature for state-run periodicals of the North”.
“The Accusation” is a deeply moving and eye-opening work of fiction that paints a powerful portrait of life under the North Korean regime. Set during the period of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il’s leadership, the seven stories that make up this pathbreaking book give voice to people living under this most bizarre and horrifying of dictatorships.
In these moving stories — based entirely on experiences and thoughts of the people as told to the author but weaved in a fictional narrative — we learn some of the bitter realities of living under the dictatorial regime in North Korea. The seven stories that find place in the book aptly convey the hardships and constant trauma that peopleface in a countrty cut off from the rest of the world.
Written with deep emotion and elegance, the offering is at the same time a hopeful testament to the humanity and rich internal life that persists even in such inhumane conditions.
More than anything else, this book reminds its many readers of the conflicts that people — not very different from the rest of us — are undergoing in North Korea and how easily the world has forgotten about their individual rights. The book stands as a classic case study on the impact of fear of being constantly watched and suspected.
Consider the simple nuances of family life, for instance. No matter how small a “crime” — anything that is against the regime — is committed by any member of any given family, there is no hope for any family member to rise above this status of being “criminals” ever in their lives. Even the generations to come after them suffer the brunt of being constantly watched, suspected and penalised for reasons best known to the all-powerful leader.
The characters of these haunting stories belong to a wide variety of backgrounds — from a young mother living among the elite in Pyongyang whose son misbehaves during a political rally, to a former Communist war hero who is deeply disillusioned with the intrusion of the Party into everything he holds dear, to a husband and father who is denied a travel permit and sneaks on to a train in order to visit his critically-ill mother.
Along with fear, trauma and all things dark, “The Accusation” also stands as a melting pot of hope and passion. Bandi’s stories are an amalgamation of his hope for a brighter tomorrow and passion for writing. In many ways, the author perhaps finds solace in writing as the manuscript was never originally intended for publishing. It was a secret material created and possessed by Bandi.
The compelling elements of this offering — its totalitarian structure juxtaposed with the political scenario, the many underlying symbolisms, thoughtful yet submissive characters, strong family relationships and the stronger control of the state and disturbing endings that haunt the readers forevermore — make this book worthy of the legitimate recognition that “The Accusation” has gained.
(Saket Suman can be contacted at [email protected])